The Storyteller

3

Dear Grandad,

I’ll be honest, I don’t know how to start this. We’ve never had a heart-to-heart. So I’ll just write, honest and true and see what happens. Don’t worry, it’s awkward for me too.

I guess I just want to write to you just to speak to you since you’re so far away. Look at me! I’ve never cried in front of you. Not since I was very small. You didn’t know how to deal with it even then but it’s ok. This is just a letter, you don’t have to see. We’ve never been close really have we?

I guess I just miss you. Growing up, I wanted you around more. I wanted to do things together, to learn from you, to make you laugh, to make you proud. I wanted to hear your stories.

I loved when the albums came out and we sat together at the kitchen table. It began as something I only did because you wanted to show us. Then it became about the stories and about being with you. Egypt, Singapore, Canada, England, Saudi, planes, people, animals, desert landscapes, snow, thiefs, weddings, family, friends, even a funeral as I remember… I loved your stories. You told me them so many times that I know almost all of them and most of those word for word, like that day at the Tiger Balm Gardens in Singapore… I love that photo.

One of the greatest things you gave me was the safekeeping of your stories though you don’t know it. I should really tell you that you are one of my heroes and no less now I can no longer deny the less beautiful things about you.

That was the point at which I could no longer remain wilfully blind. The thought crept in that time you hugged us all before we left. I ignored it, pretending that you’d mellowed with time, that we just got on better now we were older. It was the stories that gave you away. And you knew, didn’t you because you got angry when I asked you to tell them again.

I knew for sure when you were talking about Jimmy Rose dying in a motorbike accident and there’d been all those black people at his funeral. No one knew he’d been friends with so many black people but no one liked him anyway. You knew too, didn’t you? You knew it was wrong but you didn’t know why.

It hurt real bad (maybe for both of us?) that I knew the stories better than you did. Was it hard for you? Gran knows most of the who, where and whens but I can tell it in your words. Here’s how I knew you weren’t well:

Jimmy Rose was a school friend during the war. He was one of the stories you didn’t tell for a long time and not without reason. You still had nightmares about him sitting there on the doorstep as though he’d fallen asleep where he sat, pinned there with shrapnel. You were both just children.

I never remember the name of the guy that died in the biking accident. He was on your squadron and you made it inappropriately clear that no one liked him anyway.

And the black people? Well, you rarely ever called them anything so polite. It was partly racism and partly family politics. It was one of your brothers, wasn’t it? Or maybe an uncle, I get confused with your family. He was ‘The One Who Married the Nigerian Princess (Who Took All His Money)’. Admittedly she inherited it but you and gran could never conceive of the idea that they might actually have loved each other.

It was the idea that you couldn’t tell those stories any more that told me there could be no more pretense. I miss you. I miss the way you used to talk about the neighbours in Singapore feeding dad shrimps through the fence and the way you imitated that guard dog you had on camp in Egypt. And your appalling Tommy Cooper impressions because you’d been to Fez once.

Thank you for leaving these second-hand memories. Sometimes, when I miss you too much, I take them out and dust them off and call up the photographs from the black and white part of my memory and put the words in your voice in my head to remind me of what little time we ever spent together. Even though half the time you were a world away. Thank you because, like you, I’m a storyteller. One day perhaps I’ll blend your stories together and tie them in with a man called Pete. I’ll hide the worst of your flaws and bring out the good in you so that anyone who might read it will find that they love you too. I want them to love the good, redeeming parts of you just like I love the broken whole.

So thank you for leaving me your stories. The only other thing you left me was your pig-headedness and a lingering doubt. I suppose the doubt is partly why I’m writing to you.

For years you never once said ‘I love you’. I don’t even think I’ve heard you say it to dad or gran. Not in any wording of the phrase.

Didn’t you realise that we needed to hear that, even and especially dad? Or was it that you simply weren’t bothered? Your apparent indifference sharpened the pain at times. I only needed to hear it. Genuinely. Just once.

But I don’t know and from time to time it bothers me. It took a fatal disease eating you from within and devouring your mind to make you express any love for us. It was horrible. Am I angry with you? Right in this moment, yes. No.

No.

As I wrote that sentence I was but now I am not. I’m just so confused. I’m sorry.

All my life I feel like I’ve never been enough to you guys; a girl, a Christian, just like my mother, a multitude of things that seemed to be fair reasons for why you always gave the impression that I was a disappointment. I always felt like I’d let you down but I never knew what I had done. All of your unspoken rules and expectations drove me to tears, sometimes even literally and poor mum endured the most of them.

It took me years to get over this, to realise that whether or not you loved me, I loved you. Deeply. Unconditionally. I was ready to give up on you and gran so many times. But I realised as I grew older that one-sided love is love nonetheless and God gave me the grace to love you both in your blindness. It was so hard to know that I was doing what was right and yet still feel that I’d let you down.

Then you complimented me that Christmas saying I’d become a young woman. Six months later you hugged me tight and kissed me on the cheek and darn it, now the tears are back. Four or five months later I read a beautiful piece of Hebrew poetry for you even though you couldn’t hear it.

There was such turmoil. The attitude of a lifetime did not match your actions in a few months of illness. I didn’t know what to believe but I knew that I wanted to believe that you loved us. I wanted to believe it so bad but I guess I still had a bit of anger left to burn for you. It didn’t match up. You confused me completely.

In the end I chose to believe that you did love us – in your own way – because the last thing you were still sure of when all the other thoughts and memories had bled into an indistinguishable mist, was us. Our names and faces remained.

I’ve been angry with you. Very angry. I really have. I’ve said some pretty harsh things about you, some true and some not. I never had another granddad. Not a real one. And deep down, I was a little girl who just wanted her granda.

I want to say sorry. Sorry for being angry whether it was justified or not. It doesn’t matter, it was wrong. I’m sorry for the things I said. And I’m sorry for the things I didn’t ever say either.

I don’t remember ever telling you the gospel and that will always weigh heavily on me. I’m sorry that I cared more for your approval than for your soul. Especially since I had nothing to lose.

But I tell you this: you never knew it but I prayed for you. When you got sick, I never prayed that you’d get better but I begged for your soul with urgency and tears. It would have embarrassed you to hear or see. I prayed until I was too hot and tired and fell asleep there on my knees, slouched against my bed. I know that would embarrass you not just because it’s the fanatic, dangerous kind of religious, or even because of the emotion, but because I begged for your soul. I begged, and there is no dignity in begging. But I’m telling you anyway and I hope that you will be thankful, not ashamed. At least one person has wept over your soul and I’m profoundly grateful to you because I learned a lot about God and prayer as I prayed for you.

I hope against hope that in those silent fading hours a year ago today that my prayers were answered. I love you Granddad.

I just want to tell you too how much dad loves you. He misses you too. I’m glad that you didn’t see us there in the near-empty chapel. I held his hand good and tight not because I wanted my daddy or anything but because right then, I knew without knowing how that he needed his.

You.

He always needed you. Did you know that?

I’ll admit that it took me a while to forgive you for causing him so much pain. Like me, he wanted to know you better, to have a good, loving relationship with you. He misses you a lot.

Suppose you loved us in your own way. It’s nice to think so anyway. All I know for sure is that I absolutely loved you and that I miss you very much.

I hold your stories deep inside and I hold tightly to the hope of those tearful prayers. And maybe one day I’ll tell your stories in fiction so that others can love that fragment of the man you let us see. I want them to love that precious part of you that despite everything held a love for us you didn’t know how to express.

I love you. And I miss you. And I know that will never change, we’ll just learn to better bear the pain. The pain never truly fades, we just learn how to master it.

I hope against human possibility that we’ll meet, that in those last days or hours or moments that God answered the cracked whispers with mercy on your soul.

Neither of us said it enough and I still can’t:

I love you Granda.

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